The global phenomenon of poverty tourism — or "poorism" — has become increasingly popular during the past few years. Tourists pay to be guided through the favelas of Brazil and the shantytowns of South Africa. The recently opened Los Angeles Gang Tour carries visitors through battle-scarred territories of urban violence and deprivation. But when does witnessing become rubbernecking?
This dilemma is hardly a new one. Though the label poorism is fairly recent, the practice is not. Armchair poverty tourism has been around as long as authors have written about class. As an author, I have struggled myself with the nuances of writing about poverty without reducing any community to a catalog of its difficulties. Here are three memoirs whose accounts of poverty do justice to both the integrity of their subjects and the extremity of their suffering.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, In Words And Photographs, Of Three Tenant Families In The Deep South
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee, paperback, 432 pages, Mariner Books, list price: $18
James Agee began working on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1936, while on an assignment (ironically enough) from Fortune magazine, which had commissioned a piece about the lives of sharecropper families in Alabama. Ditching the terms of his article, Agee wrote this 400-page prose poem on the farmer's grueling workdays instead. Framed by the haunting photography of Walker Evans, the book presents these families' dilapidated shacks and empty dinner tables in haunting lyric meditations, all the while struggling with the futility of its own project — the impossibility of understanding the lives of others at all.
Salvador, by Joan Didion, paperback, 112 pages, Vintage, list price: $12.95
Joan Didion's Salvador is a slim volume that documents her 1982 visit to a country deeply enmeshed in a devastating civil war. The daily terror of life in El Salvador, and the brutal poverty at the roots of this unrest, become something palpable and close in Didion's sharp prose: a fear marked by suffocated anger in the streets and heart palpitations in the night. Didion's merciless matter-of-fact descriptions of body dumps and daily violence refuse to console readers with the sentimental delusion that awareness is sufficient. Instead, she implicates everyone — herself and readers alike — in the devastation she finds.
Poor People, by William T. Vollmann, paperback, 464 pages, Harper Perennial, list price: $16.95
In Poor People, a more contemporary testimonial, William Vollmann trains his gaze on the entire world. His travelogue suggests that experiential categories like "invisibility," "numbness," and "estrangement" link the experience of poverty in countries as far-flung as Thailand and Colombia. Vollmann neither romanticizes the poor nor blames them. He simply shows us their lives: living in boxes under Tokyo bridges, begging for change to feed epileptic children, drowning awareness in alcohol. His style is raw and often confrontational, forcing us to encounter unbearable degradation without any immediate solutions in sight.
Though there might not be any easy answers to the problem of poverty, its most compelling scribes do not resign themselves to representation solely for the sake of those age-old verities of truth and beauty. These authors present their books as part of a necessarily ongoing process in which reading is only the beginning of awareness, rather than its conclusion.
Leslie Jamison's debut novel, The Gin Closet, was released by Free Press in February.
Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.